Grades Vs. Grace

Grades vs. Grace

Matthew 5:1, Galatians 3:23-29

Dr. Jim Denison

Do you remember the story of Prometheus, the god who gave fire to mortals? For his transgression he was chained and tortured by Might, Violence, and Hephaestus, servants of Zeus. And so the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus makes Hephaestus say to Prometheus, “Such is the reward you reap of your man-loving disposition… Many a groan and many a lamentation you shall utter, but they shall not serve you. For the mind of Zeus is hard to soften with prayer.”

There have been times when I’ve wondered if Hephaestus was right. Times when God felt distant from me, days when my prayers seemed to ricochet from the ceiling unanswered, when it seemed clear to me that I must do more to merit the attention and help of the Almighty. That I must be more religious, keep more rules, do more to impress God. Many of you have been there as well. But we were wrong.

John Claypool once called the church a community of grades rather than a community of grace. This morning we’ll explore the difference, as we begin studying the Sermon on the Mount together. We’ll see this Sermon as grades, and then as grace. And we’ll choose which Sermon we want to hear this fall. And which faith we want to live.

The sermon as grades

Consider first the Sermon on the Mount as grades. Religious legalism. Spiritual rules and dogma. That’s how the religious people of his day heard Jesus. And how many religious people hear him still.

Paul explains: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Galaians 3:23). How did they become so imprisoned by legalism, rules, and dogma? The same way we do.

God created us for relationship with himself, but our sin drives a wedge between our hearts and our Holy Father. And we know it. We know something is wrong, misguided, missing.

So we create what psychologists call an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were, the person we lost, the person we want desperately to be. Then we spend our lives trying to become that person. We project that image to others, always frightened that they will see behind the mask to the ugly truth hiding inside. We try to become what we think God wants us to be. And so religion becomes rules. And rules for keeping the rules.

The Jews of Jesus’ day found in the Ten Commandments 613 rules. And then they made rules for keeping the rules. For instance, they were very concerned about the Sabbath prohibition against work. What constitutes work? 39 basic actions were defined and prohibited. And then each was further defined.

A woman could draw water with one hand but not two. A man could not wear his false teeth or a needle in his clothes, for this was carrying a burden. Any man who lit a fire, rode a beast, traveled by ship, struck anything, caught an animal, bird, or fish, fasted or made war on the Sabbath must be put to death.

To this day some of the stricter Jewish synagogues employee Gentiles who work on the Sabbath doing things like turning light switches on and off. All to keep the rules.

But don’t shake your heads just yet. We Baptists know a thing or two about religious activities, rules, and regulations. Early in my Christian experience, I learned how church “success” worked: the more you did, the better others thought you were.

Here was a typical week in my home church: Sunday school and church services on Sunday morning; Training Union and evening worship, followed by youth fellowship on Sunday night. Visitation on Tuesday night. Prayer meeting on Wednesday night. Bus Ministry and youth Bible study on Saturday morning.

Then there was the annual calendar, running like clockwork each year: January Bible Study, February Valentine’s Day Banquet; spring Easter pageant; Vacation Bible School; summer camp, mission trip, and choir tour; annual fall revival; High Attendance Sunday every October; and the Christmas pageant. Along with the special activities planned each and every month.

And we were graded through it all by how much we did and how well we did it. By how well we knew the rules and kept them.

Blaise Pascal was a mathematical and philosophical genius. Listen to this observation from his Pensees, and see if it rings true with your experience:

“All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they may employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man….

“Yet for very many years no one without faith has ever reached the goal at which everyone is continually aiming. All men complain: princes, subjects, nobles, commoners, old, young, strong, weak, learned, ignorant, healthy, sick, in every country, at every time, of all ages, and all conditions….

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

“God alone is man’s true good, and since man abandoned him it is a strange fact that nothing in nature has been found to take his place” (Pensees #148).

You can hear the Sermon on the Mount this fall as grades. Rules to keep, things to do, religious activities and requirements. But in the end you’ll be more frustrated than you are right now. For only one person in all of human history ever kept these rules without fail. And he was God.


Handle Hard Times

Handle Hard Times

Matthew 5:10-12

Dr. Jim Denison

In a recent interview, General Norman Schwartzkopf was asked if he thought we should forgive those who helped perpetrate the atrocities of September 11. His answer: “I believe that forgiving them is God’s function. Our job is simply to arrange the meeting.”

Many Americans resonate with his sentiments. Terrorism has come home to our country. New York City is planning now its memorial to those who were murdered nearly a year ago. The most recent defense budget request includes a $48 billion increase with an additional $14 billion supplement to the 2002 budget, both to fight terrorism. Americans know how persecution feels.

Christians always have. Our Lord assumes that his followers will take risks for their faith. This morning he will teach us what to do when Christianity costs us, and when it does not.

Expect persecution

Jesus’ words are literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and now are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his followers would suffer for their commitment to him. And they did.

They were “insulted” (v. 11), the objects of gossip, slander, and ridicule. Enemies of Christ said “all kinds of evil” against them.

Because they shared a meal which symbolized the body and blood of Christ, they were accused of cannibalism.

Because they called this meal the “love feast” and welcomed prostitutes into their churches, they were accused of sexual perversion.

Because they would not bow before a bust of the emperor and say “Caesar is Lord,” they were accused of atheism and sedition.

Persecution was a daily fact of life for them.

Before he was crucified upside down, the apostle Peter wrote: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13).

Jesus warned his disciples, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23).

William Barclay: “All the world knows of the Christians who were flung to the lions or burned at the stake; but these were kindly deaths. Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them; red hot brass plates were affixed to the most tender parts of their bodies; eyes were torn out; parts of their bodies were cut off and roasted before their eyes; their hands and feet were burned while cold water was poured over them to lengthen the agony. These things are not pleasant to think about, but these are the things a man had to be prepared for, if he took his stand with Christ” (Matthew 1.112).

Persecution has remained a fact accompanying the Christian faith across all the centuries from their day to ours.

70 million believers have been murdered across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Jesus. More believers were martyred in the 20th century than the previous 19 combined.

Totalitarian regimes cannot tolerate our commitment to Christ as Lord. Secular culture does not understand our convictions.

And Satan hates us. Jesus called him “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Peter warned us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

600 years ago Thomas a Kempis observed, “The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead, therefore cease not to prepare thyself for the battle, for on thy right hand and on thy left are enemies who never rest.” He is still right.

Evaluate your courage

If you’re like most of us, you may be a bit uncomfortable right now. It is a biblical fact that Christians should experience persecution for their faith, but many of us in this room do not.

We read about Heather Mercer and Dana Curry and rejoice in their safe return from Afghanistan imprisonment.

We mourn the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall at Columbine, the believers who died at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Ft. Worth, Martin Burnham’s death this summer while serving as a missionary in the Philippines.

But few of us have ever faced such suffering for our commitment to Jesus. People at school may make fun of us if they learn that we are believers. Co-workers or clients may shun us if we won’t join ungodly activities. We may lose money or status when we refuse dishonesty or immorality. But by and large, we live in a community which expects us to be nominally Christian. Nothing extreme or intolerant, of course. But religion in moderation is accepted and even welcomed.

So I’ve asked myself a hard question this week: why don’t I face more suffering for my faith? If indeed my fallen world is opposed to my commitment to Christ, and if Satan is my mortal enemy, why doesn’t my faith cost me more? In the spiritual battle being waged for the souls of humanity, why don’t we suffer more? Here are the reasons which seem clear to me.

Some of us have withdrawn from the battle. We don’t know many non-Christians. We spend so much of our time in the huddle that we have little contact with the other team. At a previous pastorate, our church was preparing “Friend Day,” each member bringing a guest. But the chairman of our deacons objected: “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t go to church.” And the other deacons nodded. We’re no threat to Satan unless we get on his turf.

Some of us look like the enemy. Jesus called us the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16). But if we lose our “saltiness” or hide our candle, the world doesn’t feel our salt sting or see our light. We can be one person at church but another at school, at work, at home, with friends. A foot in both worlds. Church language and world language. Church ethics and world ethics. Church masks and world masks. When we look like the enemy we cost Satan nothing. He’d rather leave us where we are.


Solve Problems

Solve Problems

Matthew 5:9

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend sent me these first-grade proverbs. The teacher gave the kids the first half of the sentence, and they supplied the rest:

“Don’t bite the hand that … looks dirty.”

“If you lie down with dogs, you’ll … stink in the morning.”

“A penny saved is … not much.”

“Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and … you have to blow your nose.”

“Better to be safe than … punch a 5th grader.”

Even first-graders know that peace is valuable. And they’re right.

Here are some front-page headlines from this week’s newspaper: “5 shot dead at Oak Cliff home;” “19 die, dozens hurt in Mideast;” “Shooting victims’ family says suspect was abusive;” “NY to mark Sept. 11 with readings, flame;” “14 die in Colombia as leader sworn in;” “Holy Land’s assets will remain frozen.”

The one-year anniversary of the September 11 tragedy is one month away.

This week a bomb was discovered at the Olympic Stadium in Athens where the modern Olympic movement began and is scheduled to be celebrated again in two years. A movement to advance world peace has begun. $600 million will be spent for security there, the highest total in history.

Clearly, our world needs peace. Where do you? With whom are you at odds today? Where do you need a relationship to be healed? Where do you need peace?

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God,” Jesus promises. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom:” peace with God, self and others. Today we’ll learn from God’s word where we find such peace for ourselves, and then how we can give it to the person with whom we need it most.

Make peace with God

Where can you find peace for your own heart, soul, and mind?

The Bible says, “The Lord gives strength to his people; the Lord blesses his people with peace” (Psalm 29:11).

Jesus promised us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

Later he said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Peace is one of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). It is the result of the Spirit’s work, not human ability. One researcher has determined that in the last 4,000 years, there have been less than 300 years of peace in the world. We cannot create peace ourselves. We can only receive it from God.

How? Here are the answers I found in God’s word this week.

First, if you want peace, accept the love of God.

Actress Sophia Loren told USA Today, “I should go to heaven; otherwise it’s not nice. I haven’t done anything wrong. My conscience is very clean. My soul is as white as those orchids over there, and I should go straight, straight to heaven.” Listen, by contrast, to the word of God.

The prophet said of Jesus, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Paul added, “He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).

When we accept Jesus’ forgiving love by faith, we receive God’s peace: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).

We cannot be at peace with a perfect God and live in his perfect heaven, unless we are made perfect ourselves. This is why Jesus died on the cross: to pay the penalty for our sins, to purchase our forgiveness. We can only be at peace with God by accepting his love, by making Jesus our Savior and Lord.

If you’re trying to be good enough for God—religious enough, moral enough, successful or significant enough—know that you’re not succeeding. Imagine what it would take for a human being to impress the God of the universe. But we can accept the atoning love of Jesus, and be made right with God. This is the first step to true peace.

Next, if you want peace, obey the word of God.

In a recent interview, musician Paul Simon said, “The only thing that God requires from us is to enjoy life—and love. It doesn’t matter if you accomplish anything. You don’t have to do anything but appreciate that you’re alive. And love, that’s the whole point.” Note the contrast between his statement and God’s word.

The Psalmist prayed, “Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble” (Psalm 119:165).

God said through his prophet, “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river” (Isaiah 48:18).

God’s word gives the guideposts we need to live successfully. Here are the signs which point us to our destination and keep us out of ditches and dead ends. These principles are for our good, and they give us God’s peace. So meet God every day in the Scriptures. Measure your every decision by his truth. Obey his word, and you’ll have his peace.

Third, if you want peace, receive the forgiveness of God.

Dwight Moody gave a Bible to a friend, but first wrote these words on its flyleaf: “Either this Book will separate you from your sins, or your sins will separate you from this book.” When we obey the word of God, we judge ourselves in its light. We see ourselves as God does. The closer we are to God, the further away we realize we are. Then we seek and receive his forgiveness for our sins, and we have his peace.

God told the prophet, “There is no peace for the wicked” (Isaiah 48:22).


Stay Fit

Stay Fit

Matthew 5:8

Dr. Jim Denison

There are three tame ducks in our back yard,

Dabbling in mud and trying hard

To get their share, and maybe more,

Of the overflowing barnyard store.

Satisfied with the task they’re at,

Eating and sleeping and getting fat.

But whenever the free wild ducks go by

In a long line streaming down the sky,

They cock a quizzical, puzzled eye,

And flap their wings and try to fly.

I think my soul is a tame old duck,

Dabbling around in barnyard muck,

Fat and lazy with useless wings.

But sometimes when the North wind sings

And the wild ones hurdle overhead,

It remembers something lost and dead,

And cocks a wary, bewildered eye,

And makes a feeble attempt to fly.

It’s fairly content with the state it’s in,

But it isn’t the duck it might have been.

I don’t want to be a tame duck. You don’t, either. You want your life to have purpose and passion, a reason for being which transcends the hum-drum routine, the workaday world. You want to believe that your life counts for something bigger than yourself, that you are more than a dot on the screen of the universe.

How do we escape the barnyard?

Choose to have a life purpose

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” our Teacher says.

Greek scholar Fritz Rienecker defines “heart” as “the center of the inner life of the person where all the spiritual forces and functions have their origin.”

“Pure” means here to have integrity, to be consistent, to be of one mind.

So to be “pure in heart” is to have a single purpose to your life. Kierkegaard was right: “purity of heart is to will one thing.” To choose to have a single life purpose.

Not everyone believes you can. Many think that life has no real purpose or meaning.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger says you’re an actor on a stage, with no script, director, audience, past or future. Courage is to face life as it is.

French philosopher and playwright Jean Paul Sartre titled his most famous play, No Exit, and his autobiography, Nausea. In Existentialism and Human Emotions, he ended the chapter titled “The Hole” with these words: “Man is a useless passion” (p. 107).

“Postmodernism” says there’s no absolute truth, which is itself an absolute truth claim. Life has no real purpose, just what you make of it. Life is chaotic, random dots produced by the coincidence of evolution and the chance occurrences of life.

Why not share this chaotic worldview? Why seek to be “pure of heart,” to have a single purpose?

One answer is practical: greatness is only possible through commitment to a single purpose.

Lance Armstrong explained his fourth straight Tour de France victory with the words, “Racing is what I do. It is my passion. It is my life.”

Winston Churchill in June of 1941: “I have but one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby.”

Brilliant scholar and author William Barclay: “A man will never become outstandingly good at anything unless that thing is his ruling passion. There must be something of which he can say, ‘For me to live is this.'”

A second answer is logical: if the universe were chaotic, without purpose or meaning, you and I would never be able to know it or say it. Think with me for a moment.

If reality were truly chaotic, there would be nothing we could “know.” Red today would be green tomorrow. Stand before a Jackson Pollock painting, splotches on the canvas, and tell me what it “means.” Or before a Marc Rothco, a canvas painted all a single solid color. Again, no meaning. Both artists committed suicide, by the way.

If the world were chaos like their paintings, there could be no objective truth, not even the objective statement that there is no objective truth. And we couldn’t speak of truth, for language could have no common meaning between us.

A third answer is biblical.

Jesus made this statement about human experience: “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24).

James added this command: “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). To purify our heart we must not be “double-minded.” We must have a single life purpose.

A fourth answer is spiritual: we must be “pure in heart” to see God. Jesus’ beatitude makes this fact clear. Let’s explore here for a moment.

We cannot see God with our physical eyes: “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:2).

But we can “see” God spiritually. Hebrews 11:27 says of Moses, “he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” Exodus 33:11 states, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.”

We can know God this intimately. But only if we are pure in heart. Hebrews 12:14 warns us, “Without holiness no one will see the Lord.” But Jesus promises: if we are “pure in heart,” we will.

Campaign contributors will pay $10,000 for a table at a dinner, hoping just to meet the president or their candidate. Imagine knowing intimately the God who created the universe. You can. But you must be pure in heart. You must choose a single life purpose.

Choose the right life purpose

So how do we become “pure in heart.” Assuming that these practical, logical, biblical, and spiritual arguments are compelling, what do you do next? What single life purpose will lead us to “see God”?

We’re not the first to ask Jesus.

Remember the lawyer’s trick question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36). Which of our 613 commandments will you neglect, so we can convict you of breaking the law?

And remember his answer, summarizing all the law and the prophets, all the word and will of God: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … Love your neighbor as yourself” (vs. 37, 39).